Last Updated: August 27th, 2017
The standing barbell shoulder press is an excellent exercise. Improving your strength on it will lead to better shoulder development and pressing strength.
But, it is also a difficult exercise to master and strengthen.
You go in, day after day, week after week and building strength feels like something impossible.
And no matter how hard you try, the annoying plateau doesn’t go away. But let’s face it: the lack of progress isn’t due to a lack of hard work.
Building strength is a lot of work.
It takes discipline.
It takes resolve and it also takes continuous hard effort applied to the right things.
Sure, you can lift heavy week after week and make some progress. But this is one side of the whole story.
In fact, there is a whole other aspect of building strength that you need to know about.
And once you do, you will not only lift the numbers you want but you’ll also find that building strength is not that complicated of a process. In fact, it’s pretty straightforward.
All you need to do is devote yourself and get to work.
What are the 4 most common causes of weight lifting plateaus?
Plateaus happen. They are part of the game. But, you don't have to waste time. Recognize the 4 most common causes of plateaus and you'll be miles ahead of most people.
1)Pushing yourself too hard.
We see training as something that should kick our asses. When you look at most videos of professional bodybuilders training, you’d see that they often go hard, really hard.
"Go hard or go home!"
But the truth, more often than not, is that training hard leads to weightlifting plateaus.
When you beat yourself up, your body cannot handle the stress and recover well. You get overtrained, your performance suffers and you get injured.
Having trained for more than 5 years, I’ve come to realize this.
When I kicked my ass in the gym every time, I didn’t make that much progress.
But, after I started taking a more balanced approach, I had great results and. I felt much better and had more time.
Yes, training too hard can be holding you back.
If you go to the gym, and take most of your sets to failure, you are NOT training well.
Here is a direct quote from the strengthandconditioningresearch site:
In summary, training closer to muscular failure might be more effective than training further from muscular failure for hypertrophy on the basis that a greater neural signal occurs and consequently more motor units are recruited with closer proximity to muscular failure.
This does make sense. A hard-working person is going to make more progress when compared to someone who lifts well within their limits.
But, there is a fine balance between working smart & hard and working hard. Distinguishing where that line is takes time and comes with experience.
And while on the subject of muscle growth, training volume is a huge factor. Taking each set to failure hinders your ability to build up a good amount of volume.
The main stimulus for hypertrophy is thought to be the application of mechanical loading. Greater stimulus is thought to arise from more prolonged periods in which the muscle is subjected to this mechanical load. Hence, a greater volume of training might be assumed to be more effective than a smaller volume of training, as it involves a longer duration of time during which the muscle is exposed to the stimulus.
Sure, you might be able to do 12 reps on the first set of the bench press but you should stop at 9 or 10.
That way, you would train short of failure and still be able to hit 9 or 10 reps for each successing set. Whereas going all out on the first set will interfere with all your other sets.
If you go all out and do 12 reps on the first set, you won’t be able to hit 12 again.
On the second set, you would do 8-9 reps before you reach failure.
The set after that would be 6-7 where you reach failure and the fourth would be 4 before you can’t do anymore.
Now, let’s say that you trained with 185 pounds and did a total of 30 (12+8+6+4) reps.
Your total volume would be less than if you decided to do 4 sets with 9 reps each. The total reps done would be 36 compared to the 30 in the first example.
You see, you will be fatiguing your central nervous system more with the compulsive training to failure. Also, the risk of injury would be much higher.
Here's how the pros and cons stack up:
2)Not sleeping or eating enough.
I’ve decided to combine these two factors in one point and not waste much space because there is so much material on sleep and nutrition out there.
The point here is simple: not sleeping and not eating enough will hold you back from getting stronger and bigger.
You can read more about the 2 topics here:
Effects of Sleep Deprivation and Natural Cures for Insomnia
How to calculate macros for bulking
3)Lacking proper mobility to perform the movements.
I often see people at the gym who could be lifting more weight. But, their poor mobility is stopping them from tapping into their full potential.
This is why I recommend doing a dynamic mobility warm-up paired with 2-4 mobility sessions each week.
This will ensure that you not only have the proper mobility to do compound lifts, but you also stay injury-free.
There are 2 ways to perform an exercise: the right way and the ego-feeding way.
You see, the mistake most guys make in thinking that it’s all in the pounds. Lifting more weight = more results, right? Well, it depends.
And this brings me to the 4th point:
What happens when you do an exercise in an incorrect way? You’re not training the muscles that you intend to train or at least not as efficiently as possible.
What this does over time is create imbalances and bad form motor patterns.
Let me give you an example:
Imagine a person doing deadlifts with 315 pounds for reps, but their form is bad.
Rounded lower back and no hamstring loading. Now, because of this, the person is forcing other muscle groups to work harder and compensate for the hamstrings.
This causes the hamstrings to remain weak and undeveloped, as well as tight.
And I don’t need to tell you that at some point, this person is going to injure their lower back.
Now, this example ties in with the above on lack of mobility, but you get the point:
Improper form will catch up and you will either injure yourself or reach a plateau. At that point, your only option is to take 10 steps back, drop the weight by 50% and actually learn proper form.
How progress actually looks like (the ugly side of getting strong)
You see, when you first start lifting, you get stronger and bigger on a weekly basis. Every workout is better than the previous.
This is a phenomenon called newbie gains and it is quite real. For some, it lasts up to 8-9 months (a.k.a. the lucky bastards), for others – only 2 to 3.
But the reality is this: during that period, your progress and muscle growth looks like this:
But once the newbie phase is over, it’s time to take a hard look at what is ahead of you, which now looks something like this:
Lifting more weight on a weekly basis won’t be an option for you anymore. But small, gradual improvements will.
This can mean different things. Such are:
Remember that your form should not break down at any point. Only after you have this factor locked down, can you increase the actual load.
Should I do standing barbell shoulder press or seated?
When comparing the two variations, you can see that the standing overhead press is more demanding than the seated.
Pushing weight above your head while standing requires more balancing from your core.
But what about shoulder activation. Isn’t that our main interest here?
Well, as it turns out, there are clear winners in regards to shoulder activation, too.
This study set out to determine which overhead press variation was the superior and the findings were interesting:
For the front shoulder head(anterior deltoid):
1)Seated barbell vs. seated dumbbell – the muscle activation was 11% greater for the seated dumbbell press.
2)Standing barbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 15% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
3)Seated dumbbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 8% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
For the middle shoulder head(medial deltoid):
1)Standing barbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 7% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
2)Seated dumbbell vs. standing barbell – muscle activation was 7% greater for the standing barbell press.
And for the rear shoulder head(posterior deltoid):
1)Seated barbell vs. standing barbell – muscle activation was 25% greater for the standing barbell press.
2)Seated dumbbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 24% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
But wait, there’s more.
The study also set out to determine the effects of both standing and seated military press in regards to triceps activation:
1)Standing barbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 39% greater for the standing barbell press.
2)Seated barbell vs. standing barbell – muscle activation was 20% greater for the standing barbell press.
How about the one rep max? When it came to testing the 1RM strength the results were as follows:
1)Standing barbell pressing vs. standing dumbbell pressing: 7% greater for the standing barbell press.
2)Standing barbell pressing vs. seated dumbbell pressing: 10% greater for the standing barbell press.
So what can we draw from this study?
It seems that the standing overhead press is superior to the seated in two big ways:
- There is greater potential to push more weight standing than seated. This, in terms, can help develop a stronger overhead press and more muscle growth in the shoulders.
- The standing overhead press works the shoulders up to 10% better than the seated press. But, as we discussed earlier, it also works a range of other muscles that work together to balance your body during the exercise.
The results speak for themselves, but I can’t go further without a word of caution:
Be careful when pressing heavy weights above your head especially when you’re standing.
There is still a risk of injury if you play around with weights you cannot handle. Check your ego at the door and may the gains be with you.
Can I use the smith machine for my overhead presses?
I get this question often and in most cases, the reason is simple:
“The gym I go to, there is nowhere I can do standing barbell pressing unless I clean it from the ground up. My other alternative is a smith machine.”
Look, I get it, this can be a tough one and I know the feeling all too well.
During the first year and a half of lifting, I was going to a gym that didn’t even have a bench or a squat rack (what was I thinking, I know!).
But, here’s the deal:
You shouldn’t compromise your workouts by going to a gym that doesn’t meet your demands.
You can speak to the owner of the gym and at least ask why there is a freaking smith machine and not a power rack. Do they not want their visitors to make gains?
You can improvise and clean the barbell off the floor for your sets.
But there will come a point where this tactic won’t work for you anymore, especially when you want to do heavy sets of 1-5 reps.
Your other option is to find a better gym that has all the equipment you need.
As soon as I decided to get serious with lifting and actually build strength, I ditched the gym I was going to and have never looked back. Best decision of my life.
So, never settle for less than you want. Don’t do overhead presses on the smith machine because that is your best option.
Find a way to do it right and you’ll be much happier with your training and results.
How to perform the overhead press with great form
The overhead press is not that complex of a movement, but there are some mistakes you could be making and there are a few fundamentals you need to learn to get the most out of the exercise.
Standing overhead barbell press
Standing overhead dumbbell press
Seated barbell shoulder press
Seated dumbbell shoulder press
Now, let’s dive into the proven tactics to increase your overhead press strength:
Before we dive into the tactics:
Dr. Mike Zourdos, Eric Helms and Greg Nuckols have done an excellent job at reviewing the current literature on training volume, strength, and muscle gain in their monthly research review (Monthly Applications in Strength Sports - MASS) with the following pieces:
- Does Periodization Lead to Faster Strength Gains?
- How Much Does Training Volume Affect the Rate of Strength Gains?
- Is Heavy Lifting Necessary for Muscle Growth and Strength Gains?
You can get these and many more articles, videos, audios, and PDFs.
You can read my full review of MASS here.
1.Warm-up well and take care of your shoulder mobility
A lot of times we focus on getting stronger and building muscle so much that we tend to neglect other important aspects of training. And one of them is keeping your joints healthy and mobile.
You can see this very often: a guy.. wait.. a bro walks into the gym, greets his mates, asks if the bench is taken and if it isn’t – slaps a couple of 45lb. plates and starts ‘warming up’.
Sure, he saves the 10-15 minutes he should have spent actually warming up. Big win.
But that way of thinking is going to catch up to him and let me be blunt:
He can’t train much and make progress with screwed up shoulders.
Instead, what you should do is take your time and warm up well. Here is a sample warm-up routine for your shoulders and one for your entire upper body.
Aside from designing a warm-up and doing it before each workout, you should also work on your mobility in the mean time.
This video by Omar Isuf shows you 3 different tests you can do at home with no equipment to determine your shoulder mobility level.
Also, there are 6 different exercises to help improve it for better performance.
Here is a video by Jeff Cavaliere showing us 2 different rotator cuff stretches. Incorporating these stretching exercises can help prevent a rotator cuff injury and keep your shoulders healthy and mobile.
2.Manipulate your training volume, intensity, frequency and exercise variation
There are many different ways to build strength by manipulating different things. Now, each of these variables connects with the others and can either work in perfect harmony or wear you out.
That is why combining them in an intelligent way is key.
If you add more training volume for your overhead press, you need to decrease intensity. You can do 4 sets of 10 reps with 65-70% of your 1RM but if you attempt to do the same with 85-95% of your 1RM within one workout, you’d beat yourself up.
The same goes for training frequency and volume. If you do decide to increase your frequency (how often you train a lift), your would need to decrease the training volume for each session.
Say you are doing 12 total sets for your shoulders and are training them once a week. If you decide to increase the frequency to twice a week, you would have to decrease the sets done per session.
If you keep the set number the same, you'd beat yourself up fast.
Let’s talk about intensity periodization for a bit.
Periodization of intensity can tie all the variables together. Periodization is the simple principle of changing the amount of weight you’re lifting as a % of your 1RM on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis.
A high-intensity set would be one where you train with 85%+ of your 1RM. A low-intensity set would be one where you train with less (55-60% of your 1RM).
There are tons of ways to plan periodization into your training.
You can follow the reverse pyramid training, where you periodize your training within each workout. You take the principle of linear periodization and apply it within every single workout.
As training intensity goes down (raw weight), volume goes up (repetitions per set).
There are also some good strength program such as the Westside Method and 5/3/1. Both use some sort of an intensity periodization model.
If you are interested in learning more about periodization, see these:
Periodization by Layne Norton, Ph.D. (video)
Overview of Periodization Methods for Resistance Training
The only thing you can manipulate without worry is exercise variation.
Changing the way you perform a certain exercise can help build strength.
There are many ways to manipulate the way you do it. Such are:
A good way to change up your pressing variation is by increasing the frequency.
Having two push days each week can help you focus on both the bench press and overhead press twice per week. One workout can be bench press-oriented where the other would be overhead press-oriented.
On bench day you could use dumbbells for your overhead press. On overhead press day, you can work on your main variation – the standing overhead barbell press.
You can follow a simple push-pull-legs split and customize the frequency the best way it suits you.
3.Set yourself up for success
Over the years in the gym, I’ve learned a very important lesson:
Lifting weights, getting stronger and more muscular is not about moving the weight up and down for the sake of completing a set.
Before realizing this, I was ego lifting, not preparing for my sets and in return, I saw almost no progress.
To get the most out of each set you do, you need to take the time to set yourself up. And what do I mean by this?
There are a lot of guys out there who tend to overlook this aspect of training. They get to the bar, and without any preparation, start jerking the weight up and down.
Often their form is bad, they aren’t targeting the right muscles and are wasting their time.
So, how do you set yourself up to overhead press as much weight as you can?
As you grab the bar with both hands:
Take 5 to 10 seconds before each set to prepare yourself. You'll find yourself in a much more stable position. You'll make better progress and stay healthy and injury free.
4.Follow a proven strength program
If you’re an intermediate lifter, this is the best advice I can give you, period.
It’s easy to walk into the gym, day after day, do the same things and wonder why you aren’t making any measurable progress.
After all, consistency is key, right?
Consistency is only key when you focus your efforts on effective training habits.
I know people who have been training for more than 4 years and their results are subpar at best. Their strength isn’t impressive and neither are their physiques.
A big reason for that is because they ‘wing it’ when it comes to training. They go in, do a bunch of exercises and leave. There is no element of progression and they never get anywhere.
You can’t increase your overhead press by 30 lb. in the next 12 weeks if that is not your focus and your goal, now can you?
This is where proven strength programs come in. There is a time scale. There are daily and weekly numbers you need to cover. There is attention to recovery and when you look at your pre-planned spreadsheet for the next training block, you get to say:
“Whoa, I’ll be lifting x weight for y reps on z date.”
And if you do follow the program with discipline, take care of your recovery and nutrition, you will, in fact, be lifting that weight!
As far as programs go, you can take one of many different roads. There are dozens of effective programs out there.
My best experience is with Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and Beyond 5/3/1 (not an affiliate link).
I ran the 5/3/1 program for a whole year and improved all my main lifts by 100 to 125% (mind you, I was weak in the beginning).
Then, I followed a simple Push-Pull-Legs split for two years. After that, I followed his Beyond 5/3/1 program where there is much more room for accessory work. My strength improved a lot.
There is much to learn from others. You don’t need to figure out everything through trial and error.
There are many people out there who have suffered so we can have proven training systems delivered on silver platters.
Some other great programs are the Westside Method, Jonnie Candito’s Six Week Program, and Strong Lifts 5×5.
5.Improve Your Triceps Strength
Much like with any other pressing movement, the triceps play a big role in the overhead press as well. By working on your triceps strength, you’ll be able to push more weight across many exercises.
Here are 2 great triceps exercises that will help you strengthen them:
By far two of the best compound exercises that will help develop your triceps pressing strength.
They are effective because you can overload your triceps with a lot of weight.
They are compound movements that works your chest, triceps, and anterior delts.
When training your triceps, do these exercises early. You will be able to do more reps per set and build more volume.
If you haven’t tried dips before or you can’t do any, this article is a great start. It covers many dip variations for beginners and all the basics on how to get started.
6.Build a Solid Foundation(Proper Footwear)
Before constructing a building, there first need to be a solid foundation. Without it, no matter how well-construct the building is, how fancy the windows and walls are, it will crumble into nothingness.
And the same goes for your overhead press.
You need a solid foundation to keep your body stable throughout the movement.
To have a stable base for your most important exercises, you need proper footwear.
Some of you might be thinking that your old pair of running shoes will do the job but don’t fall into that trap. Running shoes are made for that – running.
And their sole compresses under stress to absorb the energy produced by your body and keep your knees and ankles healthy.
But, stability isn’t high on their priority list.
If you are serious about strength training, investing some money in a good pair of lifting or olympic shoes is a great move to make.
Still, a pair of good lifting shoes can get a bit pricey and not everyone can afford it. In this case, you can still buy decent shoes for the gym. Look for a pair that has a thick sole that doesn’t compress.
That way you can maintain a stable base while having a heavy weight above your head.
I recommend getting a pair of Chuck Taylor's. They are cheap and durable.
7.Rest And Recover
Strength training puts a lot of stress on the body and every serious lifter needs to recover well.
Most newbie lifters don’t realize the importance of rest and recovery and the fact that growth happens outside the gym.
Training many days a week, every week for months on end will drain you. And if your workouts have been feeling sluggish and your warm-up sets feel like you are trying to bench press a piano, it’s time to give yourself a break.
Taking a deload week every 8-12 weeks is something everyone should plan out in their programs.
A deload week is a take-it-easy week. You can lower both your volume (working sets in a given session) and intensity.
That way you allow your muscles, joints and central nervous system to recover from all the stress and keep you sharp.
Once the deload week is over, you’ll be able to come back stronger, more energized and more motivated to hit the weights and set new PRs.
Now It’s Your Turn…
Improving your strength is a not easy and some people spend years in the gym without seeing much progress.
We all hit roadblocks along the way and need to find ways around them. Over time, you’ll learn to read your body and know what you need to do to overcome a plateau.
Ranging from changing up your training to recovering more.
It’s a learning process that takes time. These tips I’ve listed above are going to guide you well in the future.